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Daum: Zygotes on a slippery slope

Op-Ed

Personhood USA, the force behind Mississippi's failed initiative to ban all abortions by defining life as beginning at conception, isn't only trying to take away the right to terminate a pregnancy, but also to initiate a pregnancy in some cases.

November 10, 2011|Meghan Daum

When I first heard about Personhood USA, I got it confused with Up with People, the organization best known for song-and-dance troupes that go around the world singing songs like "Which Way America?" and "What Color Is God's Skin?" When I realized it was actually an anti-abortion group devoted to the idea that any fertilized human egg should be considered a person, I still couldn't shake the image of wholesome young performers spreading fetus love across the globe. Instead of singing about peace and "dances through the ages" they could sing about zygotes and implantation, though admittedly those lyrics might be tough to rhyme.

Personhood USA is the force behind Mississippi's Initiative 26, the ballot measure — defeated Tuesday by a wide margin — that sought to amend the Mississippi Constitution so that life would be specifically defined as beginning at conception. If it had passed and been enacted, abortion would have become illegal in all cases. Legal experts and others have pointed out that such a law could ban some forms of birth control and potentially make it a crime to destroy embryos that have been frozen following retrievals for in vitro fertilization.

Personhood USA, which says its mission is to "serve Jesus by being an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves, the pre-born child," responded to the defeat with a post Wednesday on its website saying its campaign was trounced by "outright lies" that "falsely claimed" the measure would ban in vitro fertilization and contraception and give protections to " 'eggs.'" That's clever wording, because the personhood law as it was written certainly would have banned implantation-preventing contraception (like IUDs and the morning-after pill), and its embryo protections were likely to prevent parents' discarding unused embryos following IVF procedures.

The debate may be over for the moment in Mississippi, but because similar campaigns are underway in other states, the dystopian scenarios will surely rage on. If an embryo (and even its antecedent, a zygote) is a person, could a woman who does something — anything — that causes a miscarriage be charged with murder or manslaughter? Could women who learn their fetuses have nonsurvivable birth defects be forced to carry those fetuses to term? And what about the sovereign rights of all people to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"? An embryo conceived through IVF that's destined to sit in a cryobank for all eternity surely isn't being allowed to pursue happiness. Would wombs have to be secured for each and every one?

A lot of this is slippery slope stuff, the kind of nonsense that gets same-sex marriage opponents bellyaching about people marrying their pets. But, oddly enough, for all the hand-wringing around the issue, the personhood nonsense could end up being the best thing to happen to reproductive rights in a long time.

Look, the country may be divided on abortion, but we're still a maniacally pro-natalist culture. We're obsessed with celebrity baby bumps, with self-righteous parenting advice, with reality star mega-families like the Duggars — who, as it happens, announced Tuesday that their 20th child is on the way. And it's this very obsession that will almost certainly render personhood laws largely moot. That's because the American people, rightly or wrongly, want babies the way they want most things — on their own terms. They want them even if they're infertile or post-menopausal or single or part of a same-sex couple. Sure, we adopt, but lots of folks will still do whatever it takes to get their "own" brand new baby, even if means buying the genetic material and renting a womb.

For the personhood movement, the irony is that the harder it fights, the more it stands to lose, not just because its slippery slope erodes into a landslide of hyperbole but because it turns out that taking away the right to terminate a pregnancy isn't the only thing that scares people. More frightening still is taking away the right to initiate a pregnancy when and how we choose to — including in a laboratory fraught with moral ambiguities. It's something both sides on this issue appear to hold equally dear.

In other words, Personhood USA may indeed be better off as a traveling musical show than a political movement. "Implantation Nation": Now that could be a catchy tune.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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